The Jack Report – Guitars on Liquor Lane in Hanoi

Ma May Street Hanoi, leading to Liquor Lane

I don’t know why I keep walking around The Old Quarter in Hanoi. It’s a bee hive and I always get lost in it. That’s probably because it was designed by the French and everything looks the same.

Mind you, not that this is a big problem because I know how to get to my hotel from Hoan Kiem Lake. And The Old Quarter is on the north bank of the lake. So, thanks to the compass on my smart phone, I can always head south and from there find my way home.

That and the central road through the area, Ma May Street, which leads to the liquor stores, has become familiar to me. So whenever I see Ma May, I also know the way home. But anywhere else in town and it is time for the compass.

Thank you Steve Jobs. And this time I don’t mean for putting a camera on your phones which led to a generation of stupid girls taking naked photographs of themselves, in the bathroom mirror, and sending them to their boyfriends without realizing that as soon as she cheats on him, he will post it on the internet for the rest of us to laugh at. So I am told.

Go and google ‘stupid girls with iPhones’ and see for yourself. Seriously, thank you Steve Jobs, wherever you are, for your vision. Without you I wouldn’t have a compass or a Vietnam to English translator on my iPad and phone which has made life so much easier. Up to a point.

Since I arrived here I have been curious about the public broadcast that seems to bellow out of speakers all over the place sometime between 4-6pm every day. I asked a Scotsman, who said he had been here for years, what it was all about and he said that he had been told it was only public information, the weather, traffic and other everyday detail.

‘That’s communism for you,’ I told him. He looked confused. So I explained that it might only be news but it is their entirely one-sided version of events and you don’t have a choice but to hear it.

A bit like Fox News in America but at least you can turn that off. Anyway, he didn’t seem too curious about anything really and would probably believe everything they (the locals) told him after a few beers.

I don’t work like that. Instead I downloaded a voice translator for my iPad, set it to Vietnamese-English translation, sat down in a nearby bar and hit the button.

Thanks to the traffic noise it didn’t pick much up but one of the sentences it did translate was, ‘when I grow up I want to be a pineapple in the military so I can do some security of our national.’

Ok, so it doesn’t work very well but I understand the words military, national and security. It is government propaganda being broadcast all over Vietnam every day, throughout every town, city and street. Or perhaps it was some sort of fruit farming or recruitment broadcast.

I am glad I don’t understand it otherwise I would have the wire cutters out. And apparently you can be deported for that. I have been told of an American who had one of these speakers outside his bedroom window who leaned out and snipped the wires.

They were repaired once, then twice and on the third time he did it they took him to the airport and put him on a plane. To where I have no idea.

I have just noticed a speaker set into the ceiling of my hotel room that is disguised as a light. What’s that doing there? I suppose I will find out sooner or later.

By the way, as you have already jumped to conclusions about my intimate knowledge of Ma May Street, that leads to Alcohol Ally, I shall now explain how you’ve got that all wrong. Although I can’t really blame you.

During the final flight to Hanoi I passed the time making a list of things I knew I would need, or want, soon after I arrived.

1. New leads for my phone, laptop and iPad. (I didn’t expect there to be any South Africa to Vietnam adapters for the plugs. I was right.)
2. A local bank account. (I have nearly lost my dollars once too often already.)
3. A new guitar. (I didn’t bring any of mine and as I play virtually everyday these days I thought I would pick one up when I got here.)
4. Bottle of whiskey (that’s just on every list I make)

So, after I had secured new leads and plugged everything in I did a search of music or instrument shops in Hanoi. I found three and took a walk down to the area but only to find they were all of the sort of quality you would see being smashed over somebody’s head in a slapstick comedy.

Now, I am no guitar snob, (well, I am a bit) but I don’t want a balsa wood guitar, I want a real one. On the way back I started dropping into hotels to compare prices with the one I am already in and was amazed to find that in the reception of one of them, on Ma May Street, was a selection of about fifty acoustic guitars of all makes, shapes, sounds and sizes.

How’s that for coincidence?

Or it could be… No, I don’t believe in that sort of thing, it was coincidence, that’s all. I didn’t even ask their room rate, I just sat down and started playing a few. Within minutes I had a crowd around me and one of them was the manager, who owns them all. ‘What on earth are all these doing here?’ I asked him.

Luckily his English is good and explained that they had bought an auction lot of random furniture and the guitars were included in the sale. And now, he was selling them on, to me if I wanted them.

So I spent the next three days going back to the hotel and playing my way through most of them. Not the silly Spanish flamenco ones with the plastic strings but the proper ones. I settled on an old 1970’s Japanese Morris guitar, which were curiously very popular in America at that time, paid him about half of what it was worth (according to ebay) put it over my shoulder and strolled back down Ma May Street to where I am currently staying.

And that’s how me and Ma May became familiar with each other, ok? I bet that guitar has a few stories in her, don’t you? If only she could speak. So if you are in the market for decent guitar in Hanoi then the place is called Hanoi Style Hotel at the top of Ma May Street, just before you get to the bottle stores where, by the way, I have just found one that sells that decent local whiskey I previously mentioned, Wall Street, for only 106,000 Dong, (which is £3.20) instead of the 150,000 Dong I have been paying next door to the hotel.

Now that’s worth a five-minute walk up Ma May every day. I mean, any day.

I have noticed something unusual this afternoon. Westerners, people who look like me. They are suddenly all over the place.

That shouldn’t be too surprising as I am staying right in the heart of the city’s ancient tourist district. But, in the last three weeks or so, the only tourists I have seen are Chinese, Japanese and Indian.

I am even the only westerner in my hotel so something of a curiosity to them. I wonder what they make of me. The quiet Englishman who doesn’t eat breakfast with us but sits on his own in the cafe opposite drinking coffee and tapping away on his iPad (which exactly what I am doing now).

Then he goes back to his room for five hours (maybe he is sleeping – I am not, I am writing) and then he leaves, sits in the bar down the road for a few hours, comes back, goes to his room and no-body sees him again until he is spotted outside the cafe opposite the hotel sometime after 10.30am. There is nothing wrong with having a routine, all right.

I have become able to distinguish between the Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese and it is easier than you would think. The Japanese all have cameras around their necks, 1980’s style, the Chinese have the money so they hire those peddle rickshaws, called cyclo’s, to go everywhere in and the Vietnamese are the ones doing the peddling.

And I can spot the Indians too because they…. Oh, just take my word for it. But today the Europeans seem to have arrived and, being one myself, I can also tell them apart.

The Germans are generally well organized, polite and friendly. The French are the opposite and my fellow Englishmen are all, by and large, stupid. Trying to speak English, very slowly and with a Vietnamese accent, is pretty stupid if you ask me.

And, just now, as I write this sitting in, as far as I can make out, the only real pub in Hanoi (they even have an old Fuller’s sign on the window) an English lad has just sat at the table next to me with his fake blond girlfriend, or sister, and ordered sausage and mash.

I despair, I really do.

Ok, so I am sitting in the pub too but I have just eaten magnificent Singapore noodles, with seafood, at a place just around corner for £1.85 and Essex Boy here, next to me, pitches up in this beautiful, fascinating Asian city and goes straight to the nearest pub to order bangers and mash for for a fiver. And the blonde is having chicken burger & chips for the same price. Serves them right,

I’m going back to the hotel to sneak past the Chinese, unnoticed – hopefully.

Part five next weekend

by Albert Jack in Hanoi

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